Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment. – Wikimedia Foundation Vision Statement
In November 2012, a group of students at Sinenjongo High School in Joe Slovo Park, a poor South African township, launched a petition to South African cell phone providers to provide access to Wikipedia free of charge. The students used Wikipedia for homework and research, but the data charges were almost prohibitive. In February 2014, MTN South Africa responded, making Wikipedia free for their subscribers. This was done under the umbrella of a Wikimedia Foundation program known as Wikipedia Zero.
Wikipedia Zero launched in 2012 to bring free access to Wikipedia on mobile phones. Today, Wikipedia Zero is available to an estimated 350 million people in 29 countries; it serves more than 65 million pageviews for free, every month.
Mobile phones now connect nearly everyone in the world, and mobile access to Wikipedia is a two-way street. In Nepal, one dedicated editor has contributed more than 6,000 edits from a simple feature phone. For the first time in human history, our vision of empowering every person on the planet to share in the sum of all knowledge is within reach. Yet, like the Sinenjongo High School students, many people still cannot afford the mobile data charges for accessing the Internet. According to the ITU [PDF], as many as four billion people still do not use the Internet.
As the world has become more connected, citizens and policymakers have become more concerned with protecting the Internet as a public space. One of these policy issues that people around the world are grappling with is net neutrality, the principle of ensuring a consistent quality of service on networks.
The Wikimedia Foundation believes that the principle of net neutrality is critical to the future of the open Internet. In order for information to be available to all, Internet Service Providers must not create different classes of service for different types of content to serve their commercial interests. This is consistent with the principles upon which the Internet was founded: equal delivery of data, regardless of source.
In the context of these discussions, people sometimes raise the question of how net neutrality policies should address with the practice of waiving charges for specific sites and services, known as zero-rating. Advocates for an open and free Internet have raised important questions about how sponsored access to certain services affects innovation by favoring incumbents with the ability to pay for preferential access to users.
Net neutrality serves all Internet users – rich as poor – by providing equal access to diverse content online. We support net neutrality, and believe it is crucial for a healthy, free, and open Internet.
Wikipedia Zero is not a commercial program. Our public operating principles include:
- No exchange of payment. The Wikimedia Foundation does not pay carriers to zero-rate access to the Wikimedia sites and does not receive payments from carriers through Wikipedia Zero.
- Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold as part of a bundle. Access to the Wikimedia sites through Wikipedia Zero cannot be sold through limited service bundles.
- No exclusive rights. We try to partner with as many carriers as possible to maximize the number of users that can benefit from the initiative.
- Open to collaborating with other public interest sites. Our main goal is to promote free access to knowledge and we want to help other similar services interested in doing the same.
These principles are designed to balance the social impact of the program with Wikimedia’s other values, including our commitment to net neutrality. We will continue working with the Wikimedia community and with net neutrality advocates to evolve the program’s design, with the goal to make it possible to replicate these principles for other public interest projects in a manner fully consistent with net neutrality policy objectives.
We believe that as the world comes online, ensuring free access to important resources like Wikipedia is a social justice issue, as illustrated by the petition by South African students. We believe that free access to public interest resources can be provided in a manner that keeps the playing field level and avoids net neutrality issues. The Internet has tremendous potential to bring education and services to people for free. Beyond Wikipedia, this includes potentially life-saving access to health and emergency services or disaster relief.
Policymakers can design laws that uphold and affirm net neutrality without damaging the Internet’s ability to spread the free information it was designed to share. In the United States, the FCC’s previous Open Internet Rules, for example, simply focused on prohibiting blocking and unreasonable discrimination against content providers. Similarly, the recently adopted Marco Civil bill in Brazil does not prohibit free Internet connection as long as ISPs do not monitor, filter, or block content.
We believe that policymakers should make global communications policies that serve the public interest. It is not in the interests of the public to have an Internet with slow and fast lanes where few commercial players dominate our information society. And it is absolutely in the interests of the public to use the Internet to provide free access to education, knowledge, medical information, or other public services. We believe that these goals are entirely consistent, and we hope Wikipedia Zero can serve as a model for how to balance these interests carefully.
Indeed, we invite every mobile operator on the planet to join the cause of free sharing in the sum of human knowledge, and we invite other public interest sites and services to work with us. Email us at email@example.com. We also encourage you to sign our petition in support of the program, inspired by the students of Sinenjongo High School.
Erik Moeller, Deputy Director, Wikimedia Foundation